The Buick looked forlorn and reproachful and a little silly—its capacious rump elevated by a chain, its grille tipped into a puddle.
There are as many roads to penury as there are paupers to follow them. As a writer, I have tried to see my own journey as a leisurely, rather loopy jaunt; material for an anecdote to be delivered someday with wry nostalgia during my acceptance speech at a national awards gala.
Today, however, the road is looking rough. I’m on my way to sign over the pink slip on "Moby Dick," my white 2000 Buick Century, as security on a loan so that I can pay my rent, five days late and counting. My destination is a storefront in a bleak San Jose strip mall where, between a liquor mart and a shoe repair shop, a fuchsia neon sign beckons: "Fast Cash! Paycheck Advance! Auto Title Loans!" There, my signed pink slip will net me $1900 in cash, which I promise to repay over two years at an interest rate of about 98 percent.
I back out of my carport, find a jazz station playing rueful sax, and hit the road. The rain that threatened all morning arrives in earnest, and the mist on my windshield quickly turns to tears, as if to make up for the ones I'm holding back. Somehow my whole life now seems mere prologue to this humiliating ordeal. It could be worse, I console myself, which only reminds me that it may indeed get worse. The wipers soon begin beating time to the bitter scold in my head: why didn't you, why did you, why didn't you, why did you?
I merge onto Highway 280 south, the road comparatively empty, since it is Saturday morning. Commuters are home enjoying their well-earned rests or leisurely breakfasts before heading out to spend their spendable incomes. And as the miles unreel ahead, I cannot resist backtracking mentally over my own highway of financial choices that delivered me to this pass. How many wrong turns? How many dead ends, detours, directions unheeded? Or is the problem deeper still? The map is wrong. The destination does not exist.
Perhaps, now that science is discovering the biology of personality, I am just genetically wired to be broke. My inborn character traits always did seem to have veto power over good intentions and resolutions. By age seven, I was already displaying a dismissive impatience with saving, along with impulsive over-generosity and a dislike for routine. These traits have cleft my life like a fault line. Reading Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ants, I quickly identified with my gangly orthopteral soul mate, shivering out in the cold with his inedible fiddle.
It'll be okay, mom, says my daughter, guessing at the reason for my silence. She sits beside me now, as she always has. In a way, nothing has changed, although her once downy head has grown into an avalanche of blonde-streaked waves, and the rattles and sippy cups have given way to a plastic box of eye shadow that she dabs on in the passenger mirror.
She has just graduated from college and is seeking a job herself. In the meantime, she has moved back in with me, compounding the financial pressures but giving me a welcome comrade in the trenches. I understand, without taking it too personally, that to not follow in my footsteps is almost a career goal in itself for her. Who can blame her? Financial turmoil has shaped her life since her father left us when she was three years old.
South we hurtle from Palo Alto, wellspring of limitless venture capital, none of which ever moistened my bank account. I presumed to live in this costly enclave so that Nicki could attend its top-ranked schools. And was that another wrong turn, I wonder, hearing her reel off anecdotes of snobbery, anorexia, grade grubbing, and soccer field behavior that would shame a velociraptor.
After years of battling the gridlocked commute and enduring the petty bullying of middle managers, I quit my marketing communications cubicle in 2000, planning to work freelance and support a modest writing life. Fiction was calling me: story ideas scratched on a message pad on my bedside table or scribbled on the back of parking stubs or the flap of an envelope as I drove. Many of these had already deteriorated into wads of lint at the bottom of my purse. It was time to start drawing down that cache of ideas, the only savings account I had.
And what makes you so special, chants my roadside Greek chorus, that you just had to walk out on a full-time job? Did you think yours was the only quiet desperation or stifled ambition? While others remained on task year in, year out, dutifully paying their bills and building their 401k's --- something you were too artistic to bother with --- you were planning your escape, every single day. And when the Millennium came, that just had to be your new beginning too, didn't it? What about your kid, just starting out? You are a bundle of plastic twine floating on her ocean, lying in wait to wrap itself around her wings with your self-imposed poverty, your neediness and irrational ambition. You... you...writer..
Last week, I had dusted off my interview suit and explained to a succession of loan officers that I was a "freelance technology writer" who needed only a little "bridge loan" to get me to the next project, right on the horizon.
What else could I have said? That I'm a perennially aspiring novelist whose self-indulgent, autobiographical short stories are probably read only by other writers and the editors of second-tier literary journals? That I have spent the last eight years trying to shoehorn myself into Hollywood's clenched consideration, resulting in one low-budget feature and five options simmering gently in a perpetual broth of revision? That all of this frenetic activity has yielded so far one bankruptcy, a credit score too low to register on the calculators, and tax arrears accruing interest briskly? As a borrower, I am about as appealing as a glass of silicon waste water.
So I walked out of the last bank with my head high and stood in the parking lot feeling sorry for myself. Then I looked at my Buick as if seeing it for the first time.
I drive a Buick because my father, a contractor who died in 1981, drove Buicks. But his were truly noble steeds, back when a Buick wore an aura of romance and panache: the midnight blue 1954 Riviera he bought when business was flush; the mauve 1957 Roadmaster, the last Buick before his company failed, precipitously and permanently, during the 1958 recession. He had flown a B-24 in the Pacific throughout World War II, defying blizzards of flak and flocks of death-dealing Zeroes, and he had the nerves to prove it. The recession drove him to barbiturates and alcohol, ending any possibility of rehabilitating his finances. My sister and I grew up on my mother's wages as a children's store clerk.
My own Buick, finally paid off after eight years, has been through a lot, and today's barter is only the latest insult. In 2005, for example, it was repossessed at 3 a.m. by a couple of husky young men. They had it up on the tow truck by the time I emerged in a ratty bathrobe, holding my Lhasa Apso.
"Put some shoes on," one of them said.
The Buick looked forlorn and reproachful and a little silly; its capacious rump elevated by a chain, its grille tipped into a puddle.
A few days later, a copywriting windfall let me redeem it from the dusty San Jose repo yard where it huddled. "You always land on your feet," a girlfriend said admiringly. But the body part was wrong. And today feels more like a real landing.
We enter San Jose at last, the manufacturing hub where strange etching processes and caustic chemical baths gave silicon the wherewithal to transform mind into matter into money. That money, however, migrated north towards Palo Alto and Menlo Park, where venture capitalists and entrepreneurs now munch their sushi and hold their wine festivals. Down here, many neighborhoods remain chronically indigent and crime-riddled.
It takes two or three passes around the block in what is now a freezing deluge to find the auto loan storefront. I park the Buick, and my daughter, impatient with my slow umbrella, leaps out and makes a dash for the door. It looks close, but is actually far enough away for her to get thoroughly soaked. I come up behind her, and she grins sheepishly, the rain bedewing her face and lashes. Damp tendrils of hair are pasted to her fresh, unconquered skin. I am suddenly dazzled: "Young Girl Caught a Downpour" I mentally title the artwork.
We wrestle the door open, and a line of people turns at the cold, wet draft. A few of them smile in commiseration at the sight of us. They are mostly Mexican and Filipino immigrants, African-Americans, and Pacific Islanders, with a few anglos too. Many are elderly, but there are also young mothers with children hanging from every limb. Two women are in wheelchairs, and several military veterans of my generation wear bill hats with numbers and letters on the front.
The young woman at the window smiles, although the line is long, the paperwork complex, and her computer temperamental. She hands us a battered camera and tells us to photograph the Buick's VIN number and odometer. My daughter waves me to a chair and ducks outside --- again without the umbrella. The rain is now coming down in sheets from a truly biblical sky, which is occasionally split by trees of lightning so close you can almost grab their molten trunks. Seconds later, massive thunderclaps trigger little screams from the women. Several of the veterans flinch and look straight ahead, jaw muscles working.
When my kid re-enters, she is soaked, and I thank her with amused exasperation. I pull off her outer sweater as though she is a kindergartner and give her my own. She offers only a token protest before putting on the dry sweater: "Thanks, Mom."
The people in line titter. I catch the eye of an elderly Mexican lady, and she beams at me, a universal smile of motherhood. All at once, everything is all right; it's more than all right. Why, the Buick is merely fulfilling another of the roles it was intended for. Like reindeer to the Inuit, my car is both transportation and sustenance. This is not a hard landing, but rather a port in a storm.
I sit beside my daughter, and we watch the rain through the window until it subsides and a cold blue sky peeps out from amid the turbulent clouds. A fresh wind begins to whip the treetops. Slowly, the line shrinks, and when it is our turn, I am presented with a small bale of papers on which I provide my signature in about twenty places. The clerk counts out nineteen hundred dollars in small used bills, and I fold the thick, comforting wad into my wallet. Feeling far from dissatisfied and even a little rich, we walk outside and get back into the Buick.
I finally repaid the loan and glanced only briefly at the legal papers that arrived in the mail with my liberated pink slip. They revealed the true amortized cost of the loan, which triggered a sharp intake of breath and caused my jaw to drop several inches. I console myself that at least some prose came out of the lopsided transaction. And amid the unfolding story of our cosmos, with its unspeakable beauty and billions of galaxies whirling toward their respective destinies, this small hiccup of injustice does not amount to much.
The Buick now bears a black smudge on its right front bumper where Nicki miscalculated a post in the carport. It's ferrying me to a new cubicle, but this job is only three days a week. The shrunken economy tossed me a bouquet of extra time, allowing my novel to venture forth from its folder and start putting on weight.